Are You Saying What You Think You’re Saying?

In aviation, imprecise communication can cause confusion and error with dire results.  An anecdote that’s stuck in my head for years describes the conversation between a captain and copilot as they initiated their first take-off of the day.  The co-pilot was less than sunny, and the captain had extended an encouraging “Cheer up!” midway through their take-off role.  Focused on the task at hand, the remark was misheard as “Gear up.”, at which point the copilot proceeded to retract the undercarriage, bringing the aircraft to a rather messy and expensive halt halfway down the runway. 

Whilst I’m not sure how much truth there is in this particular story, it serves to demonstrate multiple elements of how communication can go awry.  In the cockpit, communication must be highly intentional and precise, even going so far as to use standardised language so that we know what to expect and don’t misinterpret what’s said.  But what about communication in our normal, everyday lives?  What about communication in business, or in the teams we work and play with?  Is the intentionality of our communication really that important?

In aviation, even a small miscommunication can lead to catastrophic results, such as a mid-air collision or a runway incursion.  Similarly, in a team environment, imprecise communication can lead to missed deadlines, wasted resources, and even conflict among team members.

Imprecise communication can also have a negative impact on team morale and trust. When team members feel that their colleagues are not taking their roles and responsibilities seriously, or are not paying attention to important details, it can erode their confidence in the team and lead to a breakdown in trust. This can have long-lasting consequences, even after the immediate issue has been resolved.

Rule 10 of Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” is “Be precise in your speech”.  At the heart of this rule is the importance of clear and precise communication in building relationships, achieving goals, and creating a successful and cohesive team. Peterson emphasizes that our words have immense power and that the way we communicate can have a profound impact on how we are perceived by others.

He argues that by choosing our words carefully and being precise in our communication, we can establish trust and respect with others, avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, and work more effectively towards our goals.  In essence, Rule 10 is about recognizing the power of language and using it to our advantage in our personal and professional lives.

Peterson acknowledges that achieving clear communication can be challenging, especially in high-stress situations where emotions are running high.  He emphasizes that it takes practice and effort to improve our communication skills and that we must be willing to take responsibility for our words and their impact on others.

At its core, Rule 10 is about recognizing the importance of communication in our lives and taking steps to improve our ability to communicate effectively.  By doing so, we can build stronger relationships, achieve our goals more efficiently, and create a more harmonious and productive environment for ourselves and those around us.

Implementing Rule 10 in our personal lives and as leaders within teams involves a deliberate and conscious effort to improve our communication skills.  

Here are some practical steps we can take to implement Rule 10:

Listen actively: One of the keys to effective communication is being a good listener. When we actively listen to others, we show that we value their input and that we are interested in what they have to say. Active listening involves giving our full attention to the speaker, asking clarifying questions, and summarizing what we have heard to ensure that we understand the message.  You’ll have heard the warnings before about listening only with the intent to reply – meaning that instead of really taking in the nuances of what someone is saying, you’re spending your time thinking of your response while they’re still talking.  Asking the right questions and then actively listening to the answer is one of the most fruitful things a leader can do.  Within an organisation, the problems known to executives are estimated to be around 4%.  Problems known to management around 9%; and to team leaders around 74%, with only the staff actually at the coal face of the everyday activity having 100% knowledge of the problems faced.

Choose your words carefully: The words we use can have a powerful impact on others, so it’s important to choose them carefully.  Using precise language can help to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, and can help us to convey our message more effectively. It’s also important to avoid using jargon or technical language that others may not understand.  When we speak imprecisely, we may inadvertently cause confusion, offense, or harm to others. By being deliberate and intentional in our communication, we can minimize the risk of misunderstandings or negative reactions, and foster a greater sense of trust and respect in our relationships.  When we’re clear with our words, we allow everyone to feel respected and to go faster.

Be aware of nonverbal communication: Communication is not just about the words we use, but also about our nonverbal cues.  Pay attention to your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice when communicating with others.  Make sure that your nonverbal communication is consistent with your words, as conflicting messages can create confusion and mistrust.  When we’re particularly under pressure, we can often pass on the energy of our frustration or concern to others.  When the reasons for our heightened energy aren’t clear in our language, it can send a confusing signal to others leaving them unfocused or side-tracked.  Calm and clear communication where your body language matches your words is far more productive, even if you need to take time to compose yourself first.

Be mindful of your audience: When communicating with others, it’s important to be mindful of your audience.  Consider their perspective, their background, and their level of knowledge on the subject.  Adjust your communication style accordingly to ensure that your message is received and understood.  To use another aviation example I’ve used before, the captain of an aircraft wouldn’t discuss and engine fire with his passengers using the same terminology, directness and context that he’d use when speaking with his copilot.  Whilst the passengers would still need to be briefed on the emergency at hand, context, language and intended outcome are important to consider.

Practice empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When we practice empathy, we are better able to connect with others and build stronger relationships.  Empathy involves active listening, being present in the moment, and showing that we understand and care about the other person’s perspective.  This level of communication builds respect and connection between team members, creating open and safe channels where problems, mistakes and possible solutions can be shared.

Practice open communication: Open communication involves being honest and transparent with others.  It’s important to communicate clearly and openly, even when the message may be difficult or uncomfortable.  Open communication fosters trust and respect, and can help to build stronger relationships.  If there’s one area where leaders need to lead by example, it’s this.  Often, leaders play their cards close to their chest in case things don’t go the way they hope they will, leaving themselves the greatest amount of leeway to adjust.  However, trust within a team is an absolute lynchpin, and when communication isn’t open, team members may question what they’re missing.

Seek feedback: Finally, seeking feedback from others can help us to improve our communication skills.  Ask for constructive feedback from trusted colleagues or mentors, and be open to suggestions for improvement.  Be as intentional in how and whom you ask for feedback as you are about the questions you ask them.  Acknowledge the different levels of feedback you can gain from people in different positions around you.

By being deliberate and intentional in our communication, we can foster a culture of trust, respect, and accountability, and drive success in our organizations.

However, implementing Rule 10 is not always easy, and it may require practice and patience. It’s unlikely that we’ll always speak or think with perfect precision, but by making a conscious effort to be deliberate and intentional in our communication, we can cultivate a greater sense of clarity, authenticity, and respect in our relationships with team members and stakeholders.

Whatever position you’re practising leadership from, it’s important to model effective communication and encourage our team members to do the same.  By doing so, we can build a culture of clear and precise communication, which can lead to greater success and stronger relationships.

by Christen Killick

May 1st, 2023

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